Sermon for the 18th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 22C), October 3, 2004
Delivered by The Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas at Grace Church, Amherst, Ma.
Increase our Faith!
My first word to you must be thank you. Thank you for giving me the privilege of serving at your altar and preaching from your pulpit. Thank you for welcoming me so warmly as your new Priest Associate. I am delighted to be here and looking forward to discovering the many ways that God is at work in this very lively parish. Above all, thank you for sharing with me in the sometimes marvelous and sometimes daunting enterprise of living by faith.
You know as well as I do that faith is sometimes hard to come by. This country is going through a time of uncertainty and turmoil, a time when many of us are understandably weighed down by worry and stress. How do we keep our faith alive much less help it deepen and increase when we consider the conflicts in our lives and in the world around us? You can pick up any newspaper and make your own list of woes the increasingly polarized rhetoric of the Presidential campaign; the escalating bloodshed and chaos in Iraq; the brutality of beheadings, car bombs, and kidnappings; the torment of ethnic and tribal warfare in Sudan; the shock, closer to home, of five people in three weeks being stabbed near the Cathedral in Springfield.
It is not only human violence that makes us uneasy; its also the violence that human beings carry out against the natural world. Take, for example, what were doing to the weather. Remember that string of hurricanes that recently battered Florida, four monster storms in only six weeks? There have always been hurricanes and as far as I know, no one is claiming that Charley and the rest were caused directly by global warming, but tropical meteorologists do say that global warming is likely to produce more catastrophic hurricanes like these. Burning fossil fuels produce gases principally carbon dioxide that blanket the Earth and heat up the oceans, as well as everything else. Warming seas increase the energy of tropical storms, and, as one writer puts it, Hurricanes are essentially heat engines [Mark Lynas, Warning in the Winds, Washington Post, 9/19/04]. Global warming is real, a fact that even the Russian government acknowledged this week in its grudging decision to sign the Kyoto Protocol, though I wonder when political debate in this country will catch up.
Pile on the troubles and many of us cope by going numb. We space out. We push away the unread newspaper, turn off the radio, and go in search of a snack, a smoke, or a quick run to the mall. Or maybe we glue ourselves to the TV set, mesmerized by every last detail of every last bit of bad news, and feel increasingly helpless and upset. Look too long at injustice and violence and it may be tempting to grow bitter, shrugging, What do you expect? or else to rush around in a frenzy of ineffective activity that is mostly fueled by anger and fear. Theres got to be a way to face the pain and horrors of this world without becoming overwhelmed, without becoming hard-hearted or numb, a way to stay connected to the Source of love so that what we do, what we say, how we act in the world, springs from compassion and in some way contributes to healing.
Where do we begin? We can begin as the apostles began: by asking God for help. Increase our faith! they say to Jesus. His reply is startling. If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, he says and according to commentaries, what he means by the conditional clause If you had faith is that the apostles do have that much faith, they do have faith as big as (or bigger than) the tiny speck of a mustard seed. If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, Be uprooted and planted in the sea, and it would obey you [Luke 17:6]. Who knows why someone would want to use his or her faith to uproot a mulberry tree, much less to plant it in the sea, but thats not the point. What Jesus seems to be saying is, Dont worry about the faith that you dont have. The faith that you do have is enough. Its big enough to connect you with the power of God, big enough to work wonders, big enough to produce results that you may never have imagined and may never even know about. Trust the faith that is in you. You have everything you need.
Todays Gospel invites us to take hold of our faith, however small it may be, to affirm it and to bless it as Jesus affirms and blesses the faith that is in his apostles. And then to live it out, to act on it with all the clarity and singleness of heart that we can. I hear the same word of assurance in the reading from Second Timothy, which urges us to rekindle the gift of God that is within [us] for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline [2 Tim. 1:6-7]. Let me say that again. God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline. Thats the spirit that God has given us. Thats the faith that God has planted in us.
If you want to see someone make a breakthrough in faith, someone whos been deeply troubled by the prevalence of violence and injustice in the world, take a look at todays reading from Habbakuk. In fact, take a look at the whole book of Habbakuk, which is only about four pages long. No one seems to know much about this Hebrew prophet except that he probably lived in the 6th century B.C. at the height of Babylonian power. The text that he left us is short, but it lays out some of the elements that go into a vital and living faith.
Heres one: faith in God is honest. It doesnt pretend that things are any sweeter or more pleasant than they really are. Real faith in God throws away the rose-colored glasses. It names the pain; it expresses the anguish; it makes plenty of room to express our doubt. O Lord, says Habbakuk, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you, Violence! and you will not save? Why do you make me see wrongdoing and look at trouble? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise [Hab 1:1-3]. Real faith not the fake stuff, not the piety that just glosses over our actual response to hardship real faith is honest with God about what we feel and need and fear. Real faith dares to tell God the truth. Thats where intimacy with God is born: in our willingness to tell God the truth of who we are.
So honesty is one element of faith. Heres another. Real faith is receptive. It is willing to listen, learn, and wait. Youll notice that Habbakuk doesnt do a kind of hit and run with God. He doesnt just leave a quick message on Gods answering machine and then fly off into his busy day. Instead, he stays put. After he pours out his anger and sorrow, he decides to stand at my watchpost, and station myself on the rampart; I will keep watch to see what [God] will say to me, and what [God] will answer concerning my complaint [Hab 2:1]. This is the stance of contemplative prayer, the kind of silent, steady prayer that makes a space for concentrated listening. Our minds are jumpy, so it may be useful to learn some simple techniques for helping it focus, so that, like Habbakuk, we know how to wait and watch and listen. Habbakuk is being receptive, making himself available for whatever God wants to say to him, be it a message of insight, rebuke, or consolation. He comes to God in prayer with open hands. Speak to me, he is saying to God. Show me what you want me to see.
And he is bold, as well. Thats probably another element of faith: boldness. With a kind of fierce urgency, as if hes on fire with longing, Habbakuk turns his attention to God and he keeps it there. He stands at his watchpost, determined and persistent, waiting in silence and refusing anything less than God.
And what happens then? Like a flower that bursts open in sunlight, like a melody that brings tears to the eyes, Habbakuk suddenly becomes aware that is God is present, and he is filled with a vision of Gods mercy and power. Write the vision, he hears God say, and make the message as clear as if you were painting big letters on a wall, so that even someone running by will be able to read it! For there is still a vision, God tells him, it will surely come, it will not delay.
Maybe youve had moments like that in your life, moments when suddenly you can see through or see beyond the troubles that beset you. Its as if you are filled or surrounded by a love that nothing can destroy, and you are free to look ahead with hope, committing yourself to God and putting your trust in Gods justice and care. Experiences like that cant help but spill out into our lives. Faith leads to action, and one of the great tests of prayer is whether were growing in our capacity to engage in compassionate action and service in the world.
That, I think, is what happened to Habbakuk, and his experience suggests some of the elements that can help faith grow: honesty about our pain and the worlds pain, a willingness to wait and see what God wants to show us, and the courage to be bold both in our prayer and in our action as we look forward to the fulfillment of Gods purposes in the world.
Thats the kind of faith I pray for and that I pray we will encourage in each other. I must read you the last lines from the book of Habbakuk, because they ring in my ears like a song. Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vines; though the produce of the olive fails and the fields yield no food; though the flock is cut off from the fold and there is no herd in the stalls, yet do you hear it, that yet? That yet is the triumphant word of faith yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will exult in the God of my salvation. God, the Lord, is my strength; [God] makes my feet like the feet of a deer, and makes me tread upon the heights.
We turn this morning to the One who loved us into being, and with humility and confidence we pray, Increase our faith!